Words of Wisdom – Just Do It


Alan Watts’ unique ability to understand and assess Eastern Philosophies for the Western mind is a valuable asset to those who follow a Zen lifestyle. Without his writing and those of D. T. Suzuki, from whom Watts borrowed much of his insight, it would be difficult to grasp the true significance of the practice, if we can even call it a practice. I prefer to call it Mind—Being—in the moment.

The following is an excerpt from one of his many spoken lectures; this one addressing the shortcomings of the Western practice of Zen, and Asian thought in general, broadcast from radio station KPFA in Berkeley, California on April 17, 1955.  -Pc


“The important thing is simply to begin—anywhere, wherever you are.”


In this broadcast, Mr Watts explains:

We want to enjoy ourselves, and fear that if we forget ourselves there will be no enjoyment.”

He goes on to give an example with the Western Proverb:

“A watched pot never boils.”… if you try to watch your mind concentrate, it will not concentrate. And if… you begin to watch for the arrival of some insight into reality, you have stopped concentrating.”

It is a paradox. If we try to concentrate we are not concentrating, but watching ourselves trying.

“Real concentration is… a rather curious and seemingly paradoxical state, since it is at once the maximum of consciousness and the minimum of ego-feeling… The only way to enter into this state is precipitately—without delay or hesitation, just to do it…”

This is why it goes against the grain in the West when we see the practice of Mindfulness taking the form of sitting for hours in the Lotus position. In Asia, the only people who do this are monks. The general population go about their daily lives unselfconscious, without acting out, despite being taught the concepts of Buddhism, and in Japan Zen, from childhood on.

“I ordinarily avoid discussion of all the various kinds of Asian meditation techniques, such as YogaFor I am inclined to feel that for most Westerners, these are not aids but obstacles to concentration. It is not… natural for us to assume the lotus posture and go through all sorts of spiritual gymnastics. So many Westerners who do this kind of thing are so self-conscious about it, so preoccupied with the idea of doing it that they never really do it at all. For the same reason, I am rather leery of too much Zen—especially when it means importing all the purely incidental apparatus of Zen from Japan, all the strictly technical formalities, and all the endless and pointless discussion about who has or hasn’t attained satori, or about how many koans one has solved, or how many hours a day one sits in za-zen... This sort of thing is not Zen or Yoga; it is just a fad, just religiosity, and is precisely self-consciousness and affectation rather than unselfconsciousness and naturalness.”

The crux is one should arrive at a state of Zen spontaneously, not practiced but freely, in each moment attaining Satori.

“If, however, you can really do the thing itself… if you can learn to wake up and concentrate at the drop of a hat… [you] can acquire the special kind of relaxed concentration and clear-sightedness which is essential… If you have to import it from Asia, you do not have it at all.”

And he completes the circle with the following.

“… the important thing is simply to begin—anywhere, wherever you are. If you happen to be sitting, just sit. If you are smoking a pipe, just smoke it. If you are thinking out a problem, just think.”


Alan Watts The Finger and the Moon
from the collection edited by Mark Watts
Become What you Are

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24 responses

  1. I’m getting to the point where the words of Alan Watts are my sole spiritual and philosophical resource. I sure wish I had figured that out before purchasing about 200 redundant books on Eastern philosophy written by people who, though wise and accomplished, speak in ways that necessitate me to force my mind into their very foreign and often orthodox mindsets.

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    • It’s the conclusion I came to that inspired me to write “The Inner Light”. Most people want to squeeze you into their spiritual box. I just started reading Watts, on your recommendation, if I recall. His philosophy is more of a free-for-all explanation of Zen than instruction. I wish I had started reading him long ago.

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  2. The spiritual entertainer, never, as far as i know, did Watts practice any of the traditions (apart from tea & calligraphy, but never meditation), which i always admired about him & the reason i took him seriously as a thinker.
    Sometimes i just need to listen to Watts, he sorts me out & helps me see a little better when i keep meeting blind corners. i always liked his ideas on death, that it should be something to celebrate so we have a good death, so that when someone is dying, he says, we should say “Happy Death!” Which is delightfully counter-intuitive.

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  3. He tells a brilliant story of a master walking with his followers, the master picks up a stick & asks the pupil what it is, the pupil hesitates & so the master whacks him over the head. He turns to another pupil & asks the same question, the pupil asks to see the stick & proceeds to whack the master, the master bows in front of the pupil & says that he is the master from now on. A brilliant story i never forget & try to live in that curious, spontaneous way, i fail mostly, but i do try.

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    • I hadn’t heard that one, yet. I like the one where the master holds a collapsible fan and asks the pupil, what is this. The pupil takes the fan, opens it, fans himself and answers, “It is very good. “

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                  • i have come to think that it is our living in the shadow of the past that hinders such confidence. & puts that thought in our heads when actually we have an abundance of great musicians, writers & thinkers, they just haven’t had history to make their names for them yet. i don’t like TED talks, but it is a platform for good speakers to introduce ideas & illustrates that this era is thinking & progressing but things aren’t so new, but rather refinements, which don’t make such a pop in popular culture. i would have 100% agreed with you only a few years ago.

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                    • It’s a good worldview. Like those that point out that life is getting better, not worse. We have less wars now than anytime in history, less famine, less sickness. It’s the weight of global climate that makes all those assumptions seem trivial. Because at no time since the Cold War are we so close to destroying ourselves as a planet of people. I try to listen to the new voices. Harari is one. Musically I’m lost. It takes listening to so much nonsense to get through the airwaves good music today. Maybe getting older has everything to do with it.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Getting old must, inevitably have something to do with it.
                      There are plenty of problems, plenty of wars & struggles, a whole Middle East in turmoil, which it wasn’t in the 50s & 60s, even into the 70s, plenty of evil, but also, b solutions & a sympathetic, educated youth, the Millennial— not all, but enough to change the face of British politics & to be manning the beaches of Lesbos to volunteer with helping refugees from Syria, & the Middle East arrive safely.
                      It appears to me, the men of learning back then, were in a minority & respected by a much broader majority, so they could speak with confidence, knowing they were heard. Now, so many people are well educated & though the over-confident still have a place, educated people are more open to criticism & so an affected, almost reticence, when projecting an image; i am thinking of the humble academic, it makes people more comfortable, as the majority of people surrounding such a person are themselves educated & don’t take boisterous personalities well, at least how i felt in higher education. i liked the outspoken lecturers, but they were few. 2 to be precise.
                      i liked the beginning of Harari’s ‘Sapiens’, but the end of the book was terrible. He painted a vivid picture of early man, he had me hooked, but as the book progressed i became disinterested. i didn’t like his use of information.

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                    • Then his new book Homo Deus stretches it beyond the pale. But he shares some pretty good insights as to why we are what we’ve become. Similar to Sapiens first chapters. I’m still only part way in.

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                    • i may read his new one at some point, i dunno. Luckily, owing to there not being a bookstore for 100s of miles & P&P being the price of a book, i can’t buy books frivolously anymore, so i am very selective.

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                    • I wouldn’t spend money on it if you didn’t like the first one. I use the Public Library where they have a great selection of eBooks online. If they don’t have it, I recommend the title and soon see it in stock. So—free.

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  4. Great subject. I first started listening to Alan Watts in the 90’s. What I liked and still do is that he didn’t belong to any one religion or teaching, He encompassed all of it. I was born a Catholic so that belonging stuff is definitely not my way at all.

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    • I like that he exposes the nonsense in following religious ritual. Buddhism is very controlling and demanding, yet the core idea is as liberating as anything I’ve experienced. He helps me see the fine line where the two meet and not cross it.

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  5. Most people in the west think of zen and “mindfulness” and think that is all of Buddhism. They get caught up in otherness of eastern practices and think they are finding their way to some kind of epiphany. I can see that if they were raised in the American way of the Sunday school and church ritual which has no real affect on anyone’s life and they are looking for more, but most people don’t have the kind of discipline it takes to apply a teaching to all aspects of their life – every day. I was disillusioned with what I was indoctrinated into from birth at an early age. I looked at the people around me and realized what i was being taught had no real impact on my happiness or growth because I was being taught that an outside source, if he took a liking to me would fix everything in my life and I didn’t have to do anything. If he didn’t change my life then it was his will. that upset me. My happiness was dependent on an unseen entities choice of whether i was to have good life or not?

    Fast forward many years. We talked once before some time ago. I practice Nichiren Buddhism. There is no practice “Mindfullness”. We don’t meditate we our eyes closed. Our eyes are wide open when we chant. What you said about just sitting and meditating doesn’t change much except maybe you feel more peaceful. It is action, what we do – and say and think that makes a cause that gets an effect. Just practicing being mindful of your environment might make you more aware of your life, but that isn’t what changes your life. What you do is what counts. You are right – it isn’t just the ritual itself that makes a difference, it is what you do with it that gradually moves mountains. That is the proof that what you practice is correct. If there is no proof then one should reconsider what they believe in – unless they think the only purpose of faith is to get into a magical place when they die. Then what is the purpose of living if happiness occurs after you are dead?

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